Technology, art, and pushing the boundaries

Even from the earliest days of photography, there has been an inextricable link between the medium and the technology used. Classical artists saw it as an abomination: where was the skill required to recreate the form of a subject when the device did everything for you? If anything, the early photographer was more engineer and chemist than artist. Relative unfamiliarity with some properties of the medium – depth of field, perspective, etc. and near complete unpredictability with others – tonal reproduction, exposure, colour, lighting, emulsion quality etc. meant that results were hit and miss, and more often about getting any image at all – rather than one of any longstanding artistic merit*.

*I believe the popular analogy goes ‘what’s amazing is that the horse can talk at all, not so much what it has to say’.

And for this reason, many of the images we see from the early days of the medium – especially portraits – resemble conventional paintings in the posing, light and general composition. Is it any wonder that early photographers weren’t taken seriously by artists? In fact, I think we can argue that photography as an art medium didn’t really come into its own until the second half of the 20th century, coinciding with not one specific event, but a few technological ‘enablers’:

1. Built-in meters.
2. TTL flash.
3. Consistency – both in the cameras themselves, as well as the processing
4. Mass market processing of film.
5. Later on, autofocus.
6. Still later, digital.

Each one of these things has brought its own little impact on the way photographers work; arguably, making executing a technically good photograph a lot easier than it used to be, but also removing the other distractions and freeing the photographer to concentrate solely on the contents of the frame. All things equal, if you don’t have to think too much about exposure, or focusing, or whether you need to remember to adjust the lens a few degrees past the mark to get true infinity, then you should have a bit more spare brain power to spend on composition – which in theory, should make for stronger images.

But on the whole, I’m not sure we’re seeing this. I remember a statistic that said 10% of all images ever taken were shot last year – that’s mind boggling. By simple laws of statistics, more images means more better ones as an absolute number – but perhaps not more as a proportion. I think maybe making things easier has actually resulted in taking a photograph both crossing the threshold of ‘something you do casually without thinking about it’ as well as opening it up to a whole bunch of people who might otherwise have been intimidated by all of those buttons and knobs. Give a random person your Leica M3 to take a photo of you with in the 1950s, and he’d probably do okay. Do the same today, and chances are they’d run off with your camera.

Yet for those of us who are taking the whole photography thing seriously – and I’m not talking about the gearheads and collectors here – it’s a golden era. We photographers have never had such a wide choice of equipment to use; all of which performs well above the sufficiency threshold. Arguably, even the enthusiast compacts of the current era can deliver at a level that was very much cutting edge for anything below medium format not so long ago. Beyond that, the expansion of the overall market has made room for niche equipment makers to survive and thrive; a good example would be a tilt shift bellows for M4/3, made by Novoflex – combine that with the small sensor, and never-ending depth of field, anybody?

And that brings me to the core of this essay: in a creative form that has always been tied to its technological roots, we might as well embrace it and use the technology to open up new creative doors; I think the current generation of photographers is doing that well, but perhaps not taking it as far as they could be. I’m talking about vision, imagination, and the idea; the ability to see in your mind your final frame before you shoot it. And it doesn’t have to come out of the camera that way; there are some things that must be done in post-processing, like compositing or retouching – so what? The only limitation in the results is very much down to how far ahead the photographer can see; how well they can visualize the effect or potential applications of the new tools. At the same time, though, we must be careful not to get caught up in pop culture: a good example would be that not all HDR has to look like a multi-colored psychedelic tone map. What else can we do with HDR that would result in a frame that a) doesn’t look like every other HDR frame, and b) allows you to present a different view on the world? At the same time, it’s important to note that for journalism purposes, a degree of integrity is required in images: changing the tonal presentation is fine, but changing the contents of the image is absolutely not.

I want to talk about some of the emerging and maturing technologies that make me excited because I can see creative applications for them; I’m sure that there are plenty more I’ve not even heard of. So bear with me.

3D/ Lytro.
The presentation aspect of this has some ways to go before it becomes really mainstream; I’m more interested in the ability to fix a ‘near miss’ after capture, or to have perfect focusing all the time, or have control over the depth of field after taking the shot. For this, we wouldn’t need to have an infinite number of light fields to enable focusing at any distance, but just a few before and after the captured focus point to be able to tweak things afterwards. With sufficiently high density sensors, we wouldn’t even have to take much of a hit in resolution – and I’m sure a smart algorithm could make use of the nearby non-image forming pixels to reduce noise or improve dynamic range.

Composite sensors.
It’s a bit surprising that the conventional Bayer array CCD has lasted this long, actually. Although the idea of Foveon – with multiple photosites per pixel – is a good one, there’s no way that vertical stacking is going to be able to deliver the same noise and dynamic range results, because by the time the light hits the lowest layer of the sensor, it’s already been attenuated severely by the filters above it. And if you don’t have much light in the first place, all you get is noise. What would make more sense is some form of pixel binning – especially with the increasingly dense sensors we’re seeing today. The OM-D’s 16MP sensor is a quarter of the size of full frame; that would make a 64MP array at the same pixel density. But what if the pixels were grouped into bunches of four – RGB and luminance – for true color at each photosite? The luminance pixel could be used to further improve dynamic range and noise, too. And I don’t think a real resolution of 16MP is anything to sniff at.

Speed and HDR.
Input dynamic range should not be confused with output or display dynamic range. Even though the display methods we have today are limited to ~8 stops because they can’t all be lightbulbs to replicate the brighter areas – an LCD for instance, or a print – that doesn’t mean we can’t use more input dynamic range. What this lets us do is choose where and how we allocate the output tonal scale, according to our artistic intentions for the scene. The current limitation is that single-capture DR is around 14 stops maximum; whilst this is far ahead of anything we’ve had previously, there are still scenes that exceed this dynamic range, yet remain clearly visible to us in real life without clipping to black or white. At the same time, capture speed is getting faster – why not take two shots very close together with the mirror up, and then merge them in camera to prevent clipping? We’re already nearly there with the back end coding, but the speed (and camera/ subject motion related to it) needs a bit of work. No reason why at say shutter speeds above 1/1000s we couldn’t have a 1/1000s and a 1/2000s exposure…

Extreme perspectives.
Slowly but surely, lenses are getting both wider and longer. They are also quite unwieldy to handle or compose with – how close do you have to be to something with an 8mm lens on FX to make it fill most of the frame? Very, is the answer. But yet there are plenty of creative photographers who are using these tools to create interesting perspectives. On the opposite end, the Phantom HD camera used by the BBC to film Planet Earth comes to mind – it lets us get close, at a surprisingly natural perspective, without having to either endanger the lives of the crew, or scare off whatever it is we’re filming/ photographing. No doubt it’s a bit voyeuristic, but hasn’t that always been the nature of photography?**

**A good example of this is Miroslav Tichy – although pretty much seen as a pervert during his lifetime, he’s now considered an artist. And yes, he made his own cameras out of cardboard and string.

I think it’s impossible to separate perspective from location – getting the camera into places previously impossible, or inaccessible, is also a big part of this. Aside from the obvious aerial rigs to get us remote unsupported shots in the middle of the action (at the Olympics, for example) – there’s also the whole field of miniaturisation. Perhaps the best example of this is what the GoPro camera started: POV filming from absolutely any point of view. What if we could do that to a decent image quality level with still cameras? In my mind…taken to the extreme, I envision sticking the end of an extremely fine endoscope inside a watch movement to photograph it. I’m sure you all can think of other uses.

Endurability/ survivability.
Taking perspectives and location even further – we’re now sending cameras to places where we physically can’t go, like space, or the deep ocean, for instance. The more advanced our technology gets, the more options we have. Just like in the early days of being wowed at capturing any image at all, eventually there might be some thought given to composition, framing and the artistic merits of the photograph – once we’ve sorted out getting the photograph at all.

Increases in sensitivity and color accuracy.
Since the D3 generation of cameras – I feel we have been able to get a useable image under conditions previously unimaginable, or where we’d just say ‘forget it’. But that kind of flexibility ha, if anything, made me even more aware of the other even more difficult shooting conditions under which I can see a shot, but it remains beyond the ability of my camera to capture. Or we can capture it, but it doesn’t quite come out looking as we saw the scene. The ability to really reproduce what your eyes can see, under all conditions, is something where technology has made great strides but still isn’t quite there yet.

Integration with the photographer
Here’s a crazy idea: what if you could just download the image you saw directly from your eye/ optic nerve/ brain? I wouldn’t be surprised if some research lab somewhere is working on it. We’ve already seen integration of CCDs with the optic nerve to be able to restore sight to some degree, so why not the other way around?

It’s definitely an exciting time to be a photographer. At the end of the day though, it’s important to remember that all of the technology is but an enabler: it’s up to us to push our own creativity to come up with something different, and create your own vision. And although that will always remain the biggest challenge, there will be also always be some people who conquer it and move the medium forward as a whole. MT


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved